Evan Hunter, Writing as Ed McBain

 

by Martin Kich

 

Evan Hunter has written approximately three dozen novels under his own name. In these novels, he has shown considerable range both in his choice of subjects and in his treatments of those subjects. For instance, The Blackboard Jungle, which remains one of his most familiar novels, is a notable work of the sort of urban realism that has its roots in muckraking journalism. In pointed contrast, The Chisholms is a pioneering saga that recalls A.B. Guthrie, Jr.'s The Way West.

Likewise, in Last Summer and Come Winter, Hunter explores the nature of sexual attraction and of evil much in the smooth, compelling manner of Irwin Shaw, following characters who move from the edges of middle-America to the underside of the high life. Yet, he exhibits a much different sensibility in Mothers and Daughters, tracing the life choices of a group of women much as Mary McCarthy has done in The Group and Alice Adams, in Superior Women.

In the noir tradition that has its locus in the spare novels of James M. Cain, several of the Hunter's novels develop from dark situational premises: for instance, in Buddwing a man wakes up at dawn in Central Park with amnesia, and in Don't Crowd Me, a man wakes up next to the corpse of the woman with whom he has been having a summer fling. On the other hand, Sons, a generational saga of American men at war, is reminiscent of the sprawling, crowded novels of Leon Uris, and Streets of Gold is an immigrant saga of the sort penned by Howard Fast and Jerome Weidman.

The Paper Dragon, a trial novel in the style of the novels of Allen Drury and the films of Otto Preminger, is very unlike Love, Dad, a touchingly intimate, autobiographical novel. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a predecessor to the wryly, even farcically brutal Prizzi novels of Richard Condon, while Nobody Knew They Were There is a psychedelic thriller that might be viewed as a successor to the Cold-War brain-washing of Condon's The Manchurian Candidate.

Lizzie is a historical novel, recreating the most notorious crime of nineteenth-century America. Far from the Sea, A Matter of Conviction, and Second Ending are contemporary potboilers, blending the surface appeal of Harold Robbins' novels with the more penetrating perceptions of more reputable novelists of much the same terrain, such as Vance Bourjaily and R.V. Cassill. And Strangers When We Meet, a novel of infidelity, is as parochially steamy as the nearly forgotten novels of Charles Mergendahl and Edmund Schiddel and more memorable works of the same general category such as John Updike's Couples.

This overview may suggest that Hunter, when writing under his own name, has produced largely derivative works, and to some extent, such a conclusion is warranted. Certainly, he has not found the sort of signature subject that promotes name recognition and permits ready classification. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that, in writing police procedurals under the pseudonym Ed McBain, Hunter has achieved both broader recognition and more substantive critical attention. The underlying paradox is, of course, that Hunter's "serious" novels should be overshadowed by his work in a genre regarded on the whole as sub-literary. (At the risk of creating confusion, Evan Hunter is actually a pseudonym that the author has legally adopted as his name. He was born Salvatore A. Lombino, and though he has denied that his adopted name had such a source, the editors of The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection note that he attended Evander Childs High School and Hunter College.)

On the basis of his 87th Precinct series, Hunter, as McBain, has received such honors as the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. The series has extended now into its fifth decade, with the first of the novels having been written in the mid-1950's and the total number of novels in the series now just short of four dozen. A few of the novels have remained almost continuously in print, but most have been reissued at ten to fifteen year intervals, as the new novels published in each decade attract fresh readers to series. By the late 1970's, more than 50 million copies of the novels had been printed worldwide.

One might expect that the later books in such a lengthy series would become at least somewhat stale--that the characters would become increasingly predictable and the situations ever more mechanically devised. Instead, much the opposite has occurred. Whereas most of the early novels in the series were between 150 and 175 pages long, the more recent novels have averaged twice that length. With this increased length has come not only a broader scope in terms of incident and character but also a richer narrative texture.

Whereas each of the early novels basically focuses on the commission and solution of a single crime and presents several sub-plots largely for the purposes of pacing and diversion, the distinction between focal and secondary plotlines narrows considerably in the later novels. Because each element of the narration usually involves a distinct element of the social milieu of the large city which is the setting, each of the later novels provides, in effect, a broader framework for the expression of a rich diversity of attitudes and voices. Although from the start the novels have been notable for their striking juxtapositions of tones, what was done for effect in the early novels has become integral to the later novels. As a result, the novels have become increasingly interesting as novels, not just as crime novels.

The large city, identified as Isola in the novels but clearly modeled on New York, has always been more than a mere setting--a composite character, if you will, of human possibilities and failings. In the early novels, however, it had a sort of choral function, something akin to the disembodied voice that introduced each episode of the television serial The Naked City. In the later novels, it has become the central character, the protagonist in the continuing drama of its survival in the face of its own improbability. For this city contains an unfathomable multiplicity of circumstances and personalities, of motives and opportunities, compulsions and decisions. And yet it provides as suggestive a microcosm of a considerable segment of contemporary life as one is likely to find.

Of course, the signature aspect of the series has been McBain's detailed knowledge of police procedure and his ability to integrate that knowledge selectively and engagingly into his narratives. As the tools of criminal investigation have become more sophisticated and automated, he has remained well informed. And yet, beyond all of the technical aspects of police work, he has consistently emphasized the human element involved in the collection and interpretation of evidence and in the identification and consideration of suspects.

In this respect, McBain's 87th Precinct series is very comparable to Erle Stanley Gardner's series of Perry Mason novels, in which the knowledge of legal procedures and of legal technicalities is essential and yet always subordinate to the lawyer's singularly perceptive and imaginative maneuvering within the law, as well as his reliable sense of justice. In fact, the difference between the two series lies in Gardner's increasing emphasis on the force of Mason's personality and reputation at the expense of dramatic credibility--so that, as Joe Bonanno remarked to Gay Talese, never have so many cold-blooded killers blurted confessions simply to escape further cross-examination.

The detectives of the 87th precinct are on one level familiar types reproduced in such television series as Hill Street Blues and, more recently, Homicide and N.Y.P.D. Blue: one is a painstaking, prematurely bald Jew with the burdensomely whimsical name Meyer Meyer; another, Steve Carella, is darkly handsome, sometimes mercurial but generally reflective, reflecting his mixed Italian and Chinese ancestry; still another, Bert Kling, is young, blond, and at times painfully well-intentioned; at the other extreme Cotton Hawes is a rangy redhead whose imperturbable demeanor is belied by the broad streak of white in his hair; another of the detectives, Andy Parker, is a loud bigot with a wardrobe to match his colorful tactlessness; still another is a reserved, burly African-American named Arthur Brown; and, lastly, Eileen Burke has instincts as sharp as her luck is suspect, and predictably struggles to be accepted by her male colleagues while preserving her own sense of her femininity.

The main difference between these detectives and those featured in the television series is, however, in the manner by which they are individualized. In the television series, the storylines are designed to work off the stereotypes very pointedly, so that complexities of each character are dramatically revealed against the backdrop provided by the obviously stereotypical characteristics suggested by appearance and manner. As a result, there is a repeated need to reinforce the stereotypes in order to show evidence of depth of character beyond the stereotypes. The tension between these two aims eventually makes the detectives' personalities, rather than their work, the primary focus, and, not surprisingly, the number of potential storylines is eventually--and often rather quickly--exhausted.

The effort to move the characters beyond caricature limits the situations in which depth of character might be revealed, since such revelations require, in effect, some fresh evidence of the apparent caricature. In short, how many ways are there to show that an apparently callous cop has some reserves of sympathy and sensitivity? Or how many ways are there to show that an apparently carefree cop has some deep-seated insecurities or fears? Or that an apparently even-tempered, self-controlled cop is beset by some private demons, some suppressed rage? Or that an apparently sensitive, wholly compassionate cop has some blind spots and is in his own way as biased as another cop may be bigoted? When such revelations become the primary focus, the crime is made to illuminate the detective's character, rather than the detective's personality being made to cast a certain light on the crime.

In contrast, in McBain's novels, the detectives have been much more quietly and gradually individualized. Because the emphasis has remained consistently on their work, their personalities have been developed primarily in terms of their impact on that work. Clearly, the realistic depiction of grimly mundane crimes demands more than caricature to make their resolutions credible: imagine Charlie Chan or the Thin Man or even Dirty Harry investigating the murder of a junkie one week, a series of violent muggings the next week, and the rape of a middle-aged bookkeeper the next. If nothing else, the grinding monotony of the work would dull such force of personality, whether it were grounded in witty perception or in a barely contained rage.

Indeed, McBain's Isola is not a terrain that rewards idiosyncracy, regardless of how much it tolerates it or even promotes it. Maintaining the public order is beyond the capabilities of the detectives of the 87th Precinct. They function simply to check the anarchy of the city and have no illusions about preventing it. It is the essence of the milieu in which they work. In such a milieu, the idiosyncracies that might serve to caricature the detectives are for the most part reduced to the level of quirks. In fact, given the constant peculiarities of their environment, the detectives generally come across as rather ordinary. They are neither unblemished nor corrupt--that is, they would be equally out of place in Dragnet and The New Centurions.

Furthermore, so that new readers will not be at a loss in distinguishing the detectives, McBain has relied on a device that serves not only to make each detective easily identifiable but also to undercut any sense that the stereotyping is of much more than passing interest. In each novel, the detectives are routinely introduced with much the same capsule descriptions of their appearances, manners, and personal histories. (What is very curious is that the detectives have not aged much, though the novels do reflect the changes over four decades in their urban environment--a meta-fictional caprice if ever there was one).

Stereotypes are suggested in the descriptions of the detectives, but they do not have to be shown to be superficial because the way in which they are established in itself suggests superficiality. McBain assumes that we understand the limits of stereotypes--that they are no more reliable than an initial observation of evidence which may or may not have been arranged to conceal the real motive for, perpetrator of, or even method of the crime. (In fact, when one is dealing, as these detectives are, with many crimes perpetrated by considerably less than master criminals, one must guard even more against having any ingrained notions about human motive and behavior--that is, one has to take into account a basic unpredictability.)

Because cases are generally assigned among the group of detectives by their availability, rather artificial contests between detective and criminal are for the most part avoided. Sometimes the detectives do become very engaged by the particulars of a case, but much more often they are more engaged by the investigative process itself and by the peculiarities that mark the progress of each investigation. Seldom does the solution to a crime involve the sort of intimate matching of wits that has been the signature of the long-running television series Columbo or, on a cruder level, the sort of in-your-face confrontation of values that became the trademark of Kojak.

The closest McBain has come to creating such personally (and, in most cases, artificially) charged conflict is in the recurrent appearances of a criminal mastermind known only as the Deaf Man. To his credit, he has avoided a cartoonish focusing of the detectives' energies on the apprehension of this criminal. In fact, though he is the type of sociopath who enjoys taunting the police with clues to his impending crimes, the detectives are simply too busy to give him the attention he craves. That he repeatedly avoids arrest is as much due to the wild variety of crimes competing for the detectives' time as to any diabolical cleverness on his part. In effect, McBain's seems be suggesting by his inclusion of such a potentially cartoonish criminal that however fascinating clever sociopaths may be, they are, after all, less symbolic of the terrors of contemporary life than anachronistic. At the end of Mischief, one of the most recent 87th Precinct novels, the Deaf Man is matter-of-factly riddled with bullets by a female accomplice who wants more than her split of his latest haul. In a reciprocal gesture of sexual kink, he has rather foolishly allowed her to manacle him to the bedposts. Not quite a reincarnation of Moriarty.

What makes the 87th Precinct novels--particularly the later novels in the series--both entertaining and fictionally compelling is what is on display more broadly in Mischief: McBain's ability to depict the city's extraordinary variety of social milieus within a narrative that has both a unity of effect and of theme. The theme is, of course, rather sardonically indicated by the title: none of the crimes is truly extraordinary (not even the crime masterminded by the Deaf Man, the heist of a large cache of damaged money earmarked to be burned--a crime which, moreover, involves the instigation of a racially charged riot as a distraction); in any contemporary history of the city, such incidents would be stripped of specifics, submerged in statistics.

How the novel achieves its unity of effect is a more complex matter. McBain manipulates point of view very subtly but extensively. An omniscient narrator clearly dominates the novel's telling. This narrator cannot be described as objective, for he does intrude to identify, if not to comment on, the peculiarities of the characters' perspectives and actions. Yet, he can be described as generally non-judgmental. In this sense, he is more a Studs Terkel than a Jimmy Breslin. The narrative includes a great deal of dialogue that quite remarkably serves to define each social milieu. Although the narrative does narrow at times to a limited point of view, it never approaches stream-of-consciousness. Instead, the narrative voice remains consistent--in itself, a unifying force over a plot that proceeds segmentally through very disparate stories.

What makes this approach so successful is, again, McBain's unfailing ear for the dialogue of a great variety of speakers in combination with a very pointed selection of detail. In effect, he conveys through dialogue and detail what he would otherwise have to convey through disruptive shifts in narrative voice. Ordinary objects take on the sort of totemic dimensions that they acquire when they are formally displayed or as soon as they are bagged as evidence. For instance, in the eyes and hands of a graffiti artist, a can of spray paint is something more than a tool for either mischief or art. It is, instead, something akin to the ciborium of a profane sect. For to the extent that the graffiti itself serves as a defiant assertion of identity, the force that the compulsion exerts upon the artist's personality becomes ambiguous in its origins and dimensions, much like the influence of some religious mystery.

Of course, this sort of analysis does a disservice to the narrative, in which the significance of the detail is succinctly suggested and not so laboriously and, perhaps, heavy-handedly imputed. McBain is a gifted storyteller in the best sense of the phrase. In fact, I would argue that the later novels in the 87th Precinct series are so effectively unified because, writing as McBain, Hunter has been able to integrate elements of the diverse sorts of novels he has written under his own name. Although the remarkable continuity in the 87th Precinct series might suggest a narrowly directed talent, the continuing vitality of the series is actually a testimony to the seeming lack of continuity in the range of subject and narrative techniques in the novels he has written as Evan Hunter.

One might consider the storylines in a novel such as Mischief. These involve (again) the production of graffiti art, the group dynamics at work in confrontations between abortion protesters and pro-choice advocates, the personal and institutional effects of the dumping of old people who have become burdens on their families, the nuances in various manifestations of racism, the intricacies of hostage negotiation and the reactions to the shooting of a policewoman, the dynamics of sexual triangles, the artistic and business sides of making rap music, the distinctions made by women involved at very levels of the sex trade, and the dimensions of grief at the loss of a loved one.

Although one could connect McBain's handling of each of these storylines to his approach in one or more of the novels he has written as Evan Hunter, several specific illustrations should suffice. The skillful characterizations of the graffiti artists and of the rap musicians rather obviously have their roots in the urban realism of The Blackboard Jungle and in the treatment of the counter-culture in Nobody Knew They Were There. As McBain, Hunter has convincingly extended to very recent phenomena a long-evident sensitivity to youth culture, to the urban-outlaw mentality, and to the dynamics of social protest. Likewise, in his depiction of the tensions within several sexual triangles, he compresses almost to the level of vignettes the sort of starkly compelling situations that he has focused on Buddwing and Don't Crowd Me. And lastly, in his treatment of one Hispanic woman's loss of her son, he touches on much of the irony and pathos in the immigrant's circumstance, the topic of one of his longer novels, Streets of Gold.

 

 

 

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